Everyday Korean Buddhist Practices

Following on from my piece a week or so ago about entusting and devotion, I’d like to post an updated review I wrote last year of the little booklet called “Everyday Korean Buddhist Practices” by Seon Master Ilta, translated and very kindly gifted by Brian Barry. I think Master Ilta says so much better than I can just how there need be no contradiction at all in combining a very devotional approach with the practice of uncovering one’s own true nature.

‘Everyday Korean Buddhist Practices’ is a translation and abridgement of Saenghwal Sogui Gidobop by the late Zen Master Ilta, Grand Preceptor and member of the Elders Committee of the Jogye Order. Brian Barry, temple artist, Dharma Instructor, and translator of many key Korean Buddhist texts, translated, published and distributed this work free of charge as a Dharma gift dedicated to all beings throughout the universes. He is also active on the Seoul Dharma Group and is a thoroughly nice man.

The book is divided into five sections. The first chapter is called ‘Effective Chanting’ and deals with the lay person’s approach, and the three empowerments practice brings. Part two is the main part of the book, and concerns daily practices. Many people outside of Korea who come across Seon Buddhism might perhaps think that this would deal with meditation, but most Buddhists, even many Zen Buddhists, do very little meditation at all, and this chapter deals mostly with the practices of prostrations and chanting.

I personally find it hard to maintain a prostration practice, especially here in Bangkok. There have been times I’ve started each day with 108 bows, and have benefitted enormously from it, but my favourite practice is Avalokitesvara chanting, about which Master Ilta has some interesting and useful things to say in this small book. He says it’s useful to have an image of the Bodhisattva while chanting, and I noticed with delight that Brian Barry generously included in each copy a postcard of one of his own gorgeous paintings of Kwan Seum Bosal.

Master Ilta talks about how, wishing to receive compassion, “it is both natural and essential that you lead a compassionate life yourself” and he emphases the importance of maintaining one’s resolve. He also discusses visualisation, prayer, and using beads. My own beads were a beautiful gift from my Dharma brother Joseph. Each one has the hangul for Kwan Seum Bosal carved into the wood, and they are a joy to hold. Not all the advice Master Ilta gives will apply to everyone of course, his suggestion about making as many repetitions as possible in a single breath, for example, is not something that works for me.

The final sections of the book are on special methods and spirit guidance, in which he talks about the practice of Namu Amitabul chanting, Namu Jijang Bosal chanting, chanting the Great Light Mantra, and reciting the Teaching for the Departed, the Musanggye, which Brain Barry adds as an appendix. Finally, Master Ilta concludes with a story, illustrating his central theme of one-minded devotional practice.

It is a book devoted to the everyday practices of, especially, chanting and prostrating, with a real ‘other-power’ feel to it. “In Buddhism” Master Ilta writes, “our practices are our very faith, and this faith is in the power of the buddhas and bodhisattvas to help us in times of need. So it is necessary to put our faith in them and their powers”. So how, it might be asked, does this fit in with the idea of relying upon one’s own inherant Buddha-nature?

For Seon Master Ilta there is no contradiction. The devotional practices he outlines exist for the very purpose of reaching one’s own foundation. “The nonduality of the practitioner and Buddha is the True Self” Master Ilta writes. “The only difference is that the Buddha recovered his essential nature, while we have not. The objective of our practice is to discover this true nature and to realize our full potential.”

This reminds me very much of what Daehaeng Kun Sunim also has to say about the practices of bowing and chanting. “True bowing” she writes “means keeping yourself humble and respecting Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and sages. But at the same time, know that their mind and your mind are not two, and never lose your determination and resolution.” In a section of ‘No River to Cross’ on reciting the Buddha’s name she warns against simply looking for light from outside. For Daehaeng Sunim the power of chanting is from the power of the foundation.

What ‘Everyday Korean Buddhist Practices’ does is provide a wealth of advice and suggestions on some of the technical aspects of these practices, in a way that never loses sight of the main goal – to, as Mastar Ilta puts it,  “bring about the force from within”. This marvellous little book has been widely distributed, entirely free of charge, to Seon centres around the world, and Brian even kindly sent some extra copies for the Hanmaum Seonwon here in Bangkok. It is well worth finding for both its insight into everyday Korean Buddhist practice, and for inspiration too. Thank you Brian.

Brian Barry’s webpage
Entrusting and Devotion

16 thoughts on “Everyday Korean Buddhist Practices”

  1. Thank you for writing about the diversity of practices within the Korean Zen tradition, Marcus. Your efforts, along with those of the blog’s collaborators, goes a long way to providing a more balanced view of traditional Zen training.

    One of my great regrets is that my legs can no longer support a daily set of 108 bows. (Actually, they can’t support 108 at any time!) But I still do nine prostrations every morning and approach them with the awareness that they really need to count! (Silly me.)

  2. Hi Marcus,
    Thank you for this. 🙂 I was just pondering the significance of bowing and rituals this morning and here this is! It sounds like a great book to read. I like hearing other’s ways of practice as it seems that there is always something that helps me in my own practice.

    1. Hi Rachael,
      I don’t know about finding it. It’s not a long book, and was given as a not-for-sale book, a Dharma gift. I did drop a line to Brian Barry about it, and the possiblity of perhaps converting it to a PDF format.

  3. Hi Chong Go,
    Thanks for looking into it. It’s funny you mentioned PDF, ’cause I was thinking of this too, must have read your wave length. Maybe Brian Barry will be thinking this too, 🙂 !

  4. Thank you Marcus,
    Last year, we met a friend of Brian’s, she owns one of those little Buddhist shops along the street to Jogyesa. She gave me a copy of the book, but as I went to find it now,I see it is gone! I must have given it away at some point…

    After reading your post, I’d really like to get another.

    Rachel, if I can, I’ll get one for you as well!

    ChongGo Sunim, if you’re ever going to meet Brian on a weekend, let me know, maybe I’d be able to join. I’d really like to meet him!

    1. Hi Rachel, I found a few copies of the book, if you haven’t found a way to get it yet, you can email me your address:


      ChongGo Sunim told me that he gave you Brian Barry’s email, so maybe you’ve found one already!

  5. HI, I just found this site. I am glad for it. I have book on “May All Beigns Be Happy” By Beop Jeong Sunim….I was in Seoul for 3 years as art teacher but school closed. I am very sad and feel lost without Seoul, visiting temples, hiking to temples for tea, and teaching art with mindfulness. I often wonder…Is there a way for an expat to get a VIsa to live in Korea to study Buddhism and yet somehow also find work that is not at a Hogwon to support oneself? I can not to HogWon…. My Dream is to find a Korean business partner who is honest and Buddhist. I want to open a mindful art making studio with a downstairs cafe/tea room and art gallery for Korean parents and monks to relax from stress ….Children and perhaps even adults could take Art Classes (not hogwon style but centering on the mind and creative spirit with Art history too and Korean things) ….Maybe also offer meditation linked to art and yoga? I also want to have visitng artists and historians of Korean arts and Old Korean ways to teach children to continue to value these things. Teens especially sometimes are moving away from old things and knowledge of old ways. I think this is very important. Also the meanings and deep connection to the land, nature, and the written characters of Hongul are SO important! I want to help preserve these things even tho I am not Korean. I feel connection to these things. I have taught ART for 10 years and also have worked in cafes and coffee/tea shops. I also have a background in Interior Design and drafting so planning a shop/arts center would be quite do-able with help. ……I have KOrean friends there who are Doctors in Hospitals but they do not have funding to help with my idea but like it very much!
    .My Korean is minimal but I find I can communicate very well without words! I wonder how to find honest Korean person to make this dream realized….I wish to open it in old building (2 story) somewhere near Insadong’s Temple area, Bucheon, Bampo, Hongik University….but I do not have a lot of money for this venture….You can see my site at www dot artteacherwithheart dot com

  6. How do I get this book with translations of Korean chants?
    I have found recordings and translations via sound recordings on line but they are hard to hear properly and do not include very many chants. 😦

    Also, How could I find Korean floor matress that is not expensive to get in USA? I will be teaching in the middle of NO WHERE on a native american indian reservation …hundreds of miles from any stores and such….
    I do not want big american matress and furniture but simple Korean things. There is not a KOrean town in this state, tho I did write to the Korean Newspaper of the area….I have not heard back.

  7. Hi, I just came across your blog and this post was very helpful. Can you tell me where I might a get a copy of the master IIta’s book? I have been studying zen at a Kwan Um zen center in the U.S. and have enjoyed it. I have found the devotional practice of Namu Amitabul to be helpful but have struggled with it’s at least surficial contradiction to the zen meditation(self power) I am doing. I would however, ask myself if it was contradictory why was it included in the chanting of the Kwan UM center. Your brief summary of Master IItas understanding shed some very helpful light on that issue and went along way to helping me clarify my practice.

    Again thank you, Ron

    1. Hi Ron,
      I’m afraid this book might be out of print, but you could try contacting Brian Barry(see link on the page) and see if he might know where you could get the book or a pdf.

      with palms together,
      Chong Go Sunim

  8. hi, i want to know about the buddhist nuns in korea, about their history,lifestyle,rituals,social services,their position in society… i’ll be very thankfull to you.

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